Lies, Damned Lies and Austerity
17/05/2012 3 Comments
Today David Cameron once again reiterated his intention to continue down the path of austerity in order to sort out the UK’s economy. David does this a lot and continually comes back to his belief that government spending caused the mess and that only a severe reduction in government spending can restore economic growth. As you probably know, in contrast to David, I am in favour of an economic stimulus.
When I write about that on here I often receive comments along the lines of David’s – that government spending caused the mess in the first place and more of it would just cause an even bigger mess. I have perhaps not addressed this directly in the past so, hold on to your hats, I will do so now.
First of all saying that the cause of the mess was purely the previous government’s spending is at best an extremely simplified view. There were many factors that combined to cause the financial crisis. People who say it was caused by government spending are conveniently forgetting what the banks were up to. That’s another story though and I do need to address the misconceptions about government spending. I am going to try to explain why I think spending is sometimes a good idea and sometimes a bad idea and why at the moment I think it is a very good idea indeed. So here goes…
Over time the economy swings between periods of growth and periods of contraction. Governments (despite often making claims to the contrary) have never been able to stop this happening and perhaps this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. After all, a government has only simple tools at its disposal and economies are complicated things in which bad things have a habit of finding ways to happen.
Although we should accept that there will always be good and bad periods in the economy we should also appreciate that the government is certainly not powerless to help out. A government can use some of its simple tools to reduce the impact and duration of the bad times when they arrive and bring back the good times as soon as possible.
One of these tools is government spending and to see how this can help we need to first take a look at the private sector. Companies in the private sector have important short-term financial goals. They generally seek to make a profit every year and additionally have certain cash flow considerations (e.g. they need to be able to pay salaries, buy stock, pay rent etc). So if their revenue drops off, they may well look to reduce their spending in line with it. If their revenue increases, they may well look to increase their spending accordingly. For example, if a company is doing badly they may reduce their costs by making redundancies and if a company is doing well they may take on more staff. Simple enough. Let’s look at what happens in economic cycles.
In periods of strong economic growth, lots of companies do well and expand and take on staff. In periods of economic contraction, lots of companies do badly and lots of people lose their jobs.
This means that private sector spending closely follows how well the economy is doing as a whole – when the economy is doing well, private sector spending increases and when the economy is doing badly, private sector spending decreases. These spending swings in the private sector actually amplify the effect of the economic cycle. i.e. the redundancies they make during weak economic times weaken the economy further because unemployed people stop having money to spend and rely on benefits and in weak economic times they cannot easily find new employment.
One way the government (or actually the Bank of England since it is now independent) can influence this is through changes in interest rates. By lowering interest rates, it becomes cheaper for companies to borrow money and therefor encourages them to spend.
There is a problem with this approach though as you can only cut interest rates so far. Once they are down to almost zero (as they have been in the UK for over three years) then there is no way to stimulate the economy by cutting them further.
Another way the government can influence things is by spending money. When spending in the private sector dries up the government can step in and fill the gap. Governments of developed economies (who borrow in their own currency) can borrow very large sums over very long periods of time and don’t have to worry about the same short term profit or cash flow issues that companies face.
When the private sector is expanding, the government can reduce public spending and let the private sector fill the gap. When the private sector is contracting, the government can increase public spending and fill the gap. If the gap is not filled then we end up with unemployment and recession.
That’s what happens if the government does nothing but now imagine an even worse situation. In this situation the government spending tracks that of the private sector. i.e. when things are going well, the government increases spending and when things are going badly the government reduces public spending. Pushing up government spending when the private sector is trying to expand will help boost the economy a bit but it is an inefficient use of funds because the public and private sectors are in effect competing against one another. Essentially we create a strong supply of jobs for which there is weak demand. In contrast, reducing government spending when the private sector is contracting further amplifies the effect of the downturn. In this situation we are reducing the supply of jobs when there is strong demand. In the latter situation the government may cause a full-blown economic depression from which the economy may take many years to recover.
Actually, that sounds familiar.
Anyway. During the years preceding the economic crisis, the UK was experiencing some unspectacular growth. The Labour government at the time coupled this with some unspectacular increases in government spending when they should have, if they were sensible, made some unspectacular reductions in public spending.
So yes, I agree that they got things wrong. Their increase in spending was certainly fairly benign compared with the current government’s version of what happened but yes, they would have been better to reduce spending overall.
Since the crisis hit, however, the economy has contracted hugely and the private sector has shed hundreds of thousands of jobs. Now we have one of those spending gaps I mentioned and it’s a really big one. This is why government spending now would be a good idea – we’re not competing with the private sector, we are simply trying to increase the supply of jobs to help meet the huge demand for them. Let me be very clear – I am not saying that fiscal policy under the previous government was right but just because they got it wrong does not mean that we should be backing a plan now that is even wronger.
If it is this simple though, why is our government backing an austerity plan at all? Given the above argument, isn’t it the exact opposite of what they should be doing? Yes it is. Politicians are people with agendas though.
Let me give an example of an agenda. Suppose you were a politician who very much liked rich people. Your ideal UK might consist of low taxes on rich people but that’s expensive so you might try to fund those tax cuts by severely cutting public spending. Of course, since most people are not rich, you couldn’t just say that’s what you were doing because you need more than just rich people’s votes to stay in power. You might therefore invest significant time and effort trying to convince people that government spending during bad economic times was a terrible thing and the only way to restore economic growth was through reducing spending and cutting taxes on rich people.
The government has managed to get away with it quite well so far because the economy is complicated so it’s very hard for people to know whether they are telling the truth or have a hidden agenda. Additionally, the government is extremely effective at misleading the electorate. For most people the “reduce spending when things are bad” makes a lot of sense because they are able to relate it directly to their personal finances. If I have a big credit card bill and my household income drops I’d better cut back spending and pay off my credit card, right? Yes, that’s right for your household but there is a subtle and very important difference between household finance and the economy as a whole.
In your personal finances you are only concerned about your own personal incomings and outgoings. In the economy though, your spending is my income and visa versa. If we decide to kill off spending in the economy we by definition kill off income too. The government continually draws an analogy with personal debt and never takes the time to explain this distinction.
You might say that you accept the above arguments but it’s too late for us to borrow money because we already have so much debt no one will lend to us. You’d be wrong though – we have people queuing up to lend to the UK at the moment. A developed economy borrowing in their own currency (this importantly excludes the Eurozone) has a truly amazing capacity to borrow money cheaply. If you think we’re anywhere near the limit then have a look at Japan’s government debt in comparison:
And guess what? They can borrow even more cheaply than us!
Also worth pointing out on this graph is how little our debt actually increased during the years preceding the financial crisis. Yes, it should have been reducing but it wasn’t exactly the mad spending spree that everyone seems to think it was. Labour had, on the eve of the financial crisis, more or less the same amount of debt they inherited when they were elected in 1997.
In summary there are three important points in this post that David Cameron doesn’t want you to know because if you know them his argument falls to pieces:
- Government spending during a period of economic growth and spending during a period of economic contraction are very different things. Just because the former is bad does not mean the latter is, especially when interest rates are at zero.
- The personal spending analogy does not work when considering the economy as a whole because one person’s spending is another person’s income.
- There is plenty of scope for the UK to borrow money
I know this post is quite a lot to digest but I have done my best to explain why I think the things that I do. Perhaps you’ve read through the post and think my reasoning is wrong and David Cameron’s is right. Perhaps you think austerity really is the way to restore economic growth. That’s fine, after all David and I each have a theory and at the end of the day that’s all they are – theories.
I suppose though, if I were being really picky, I might point out that the growing evidence strongly supports my one.